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Licence To Kill (1989)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell, Talisa Soto, David Hedison, Wayne Newton

Written By: Michael G. Wilson, Richard Maibaum Directed By: John Glen

The Short Version

The worlds of 007 and modern 80s action finally merge… almost.

Licence To Kill is a great Bond character movie without necessarily feeling like a “Bond movie.”

It’s also much better than audiences of the time gave it credit for.

Nice to see David Hedison again… and yes, great to see Wayne Newton.  Seriously.

The Timothy Dalton era was better than you remember.  Check out Licence To Kill.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s not bad; it’s just easily mistaken for something else.

Pairs Well With...


Smooth stuff for action south of the Rio Grande.

“Effective immediately, your licence to kill is revoked, and I require you to hand over your weapon.  Now.”

By the late 1980s, the Golden Age of Action Movies was in full swing, and even though it had paved the way for the coming of said Golden Age, the James Bond franchise was still trying to play catch-up.  Licence To Kill is the ultimate expression of that endeavor, and for some, one of the series’ ultimate failures.

For my part, I don’t consider Licence To Kill a failure at all.  An experiment that didn’t quite turn out the way that Eon Productions had probably hoped, to be sure, but certainly not a failure.  Indeed, taken outside of its 007 context, it’s a very good action flick, and though it does feel a bit off within its intended context, it still manages to be one of the classic franchise’s most interesting studies of James Bond as a human being.

First, let’s talk about the action, and the Golden Age that was.

Most James Bond flicks stand out as being “James Bond flicks” and just can’t be mistaken for anything else.  Licence To Kill, however, could very easily play as something entirely different with very little editing to speak of; change a few names and it’s there, ready for Mel Gibson or Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal or someone else to take the place of Timothy Dalton as a brand new hero working for pretty much anyone but the British Secret Service.  That’s because despite the fact that this really is a from scratch James Bond screenplay that even utilizes some previously ignored elements from the works of Ian Fleming himself, at its core, Licence To Kill combines the off-the-shelf plotlines of a (very American) revenge flick and a (very American) rogue narco cop flick.  The Evil Drug Lord attacks Our Hero’s best buddy on his wedding night, killing the bride and maiming the groom.  Our Hero wants revenge, but The Outfit He Works For won’t hear of it, so Our Hero goes rogue, hooks up with one of his best buddy’s contacts, and goes to take out the Evil Drug Lord.  That’s hardly the description of a typical Bond flick, but Dolph, Ah-nold, or even Don “the Dragon” Wilson?  Easily.  In a decade where 007 no longer defined the times, but instead played in its own pond, “uncle” is cried, whether deliberately or not.  Things come full circle, and on the most visible surface, a Bond film is now indistinguishable from the Standard Action the franchise once inspired.  It’s all there – the Golden Age Action Formula plays straight on down the line without missing a beat.  (Hell, even the girlie bar is there; no stripping at this one, though.  And it has a pop sellout soundtrack!)

And yet, Licence To Kill is still wonderfully, fantastically Bond… though quite unusually (I can only think of one other 007 film where this is true), that “Essence of Bond” plays out just below the surface rather than on top of it.

The key to the “Bondness” of Licence To Kill comes via the memory of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, upon which this story’s premise builds.  In the older film, Bond’s own brand new bride is murdered before his eyes by a villain he himself had just foiled.  Now, years later, he sees the exact same thing happen to his best friend.  Yes, Bond is a professional, but if anything is going to make him go completely rogue and turn his back of service to Queen and Country, surely, this scenario is it.  It’s the notion of “not/never again,” and Bond’s reactions to what’s happened to Felix make for a fascinating – and completely plausible – character study of just what happens when 007 is pushed over the edge… and what those we know to be his friends will do to help him.  And so, even though the film as a whole can be seen as something that is very much not Bond and the franchise straying from its roots, it is, in fact, just about as raw a look at James Bond the man as audiences would ever see before the Daniel Craig era, and Timothy Dalton does a damn fine job of making it work.

Licence To Kill also provides franchise fans with the absolute treat of Q (Desmond Llewellyn) coming out into the field as a de facto support agent, giving the perpetual audience favorite his most substantial role in the series, and even though Moneypenny is no played by Caroline Bliss instead of Lois Maxwell, she gets a decent though brief nod, as well.  It’s also nice to see David Hedison – easily the best loved of the classic Felix Leiters – come back as the first man ever to repeat a performance as James Bond’s best American friend. 

Meanwhile, Robert Davi makes for an outstanding 1980s drug lord.  No, his character, Sanchez, isn’t an over the top voodoo kingpin like Mr. Big was in Live and Let Die, but he does have quite a fascinating little front operation that he uses to both manage his network and launder his cash: a TV Evangelist scam, which is disturbingly plausible the way the script presents it, and an absolutely brilliant idea that also happened to be very topical during the decade that brought about “the world’s first Christian water slide.”  Best of all, his unwitting front man, Professor Joe Butcher (who seems utterly oblivious to the fact that his temple is a front for a major cocaine operation), is played by none other than Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton!  I never thought I’d say this, but Wayne Newton is way cooler than he has any right to be in this flick, and serves as a major sidebar highlight without ever becoming a distraction from the action of the main story.  Or, if it’s nasty henchmen you’re looking for, check out a young and then-unknown Benicio Del Toro as Sanchez’s blade man, Dario.  He’s effectively creepy, and there’s a definite glimmer of his future success to be seen here.

As for the ladies, Carey Lowell – most recognizable to later audiences from her stint on “Law & Order” – does well enough with the part she’s given, but that part is a mess.  Her character is set up as a badass pilot who regularly stands toe to toe with Latin bad boys, but she cries at the drop of a hat and plunges into fits of schoolgirl jealousy the moment that the “naughty” Bond girl character, Lupe (Talisa Soto), looks at 007 sideways.  Consistent writing this isn’t, but thankfully, it’s the only bad writing to be found throughout the whole picture.

Trying saying that about most 80s action flicks.

Unfortunately for the people at Eon Productions, Licence To Kill happened to come out at the tail end of one of the best cinema summers ever, premiering in the shadows of films like Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  The deck was already stacked slightly against it thanks to unfairly lingering resentment over the casting of Timothy Dalton as 007 two years before, and with that kind of competition… frankly, it’s amazing that Licence To Kill performed as well as it did.  (It did, by the way, turn a profit.)

After the summer was over, a lot of things hit the fan behind the scenes, and Licence To Kill would prove to be 007’s last dance for the next six years.  That subsequent gap has also unfairly contributed to its latter day bad rep, but if one sets the prejudices and leaped-to conclusions aside and takes an honest look at Licence To Kill for what it really is…  Sure, the experiment didn’t turn out quite the way everyone wanted it to, but it’s not a bad movie.  In fact, taken either as a straight up 80s action flick or as a 007 franchise film, it’s actually quite good.

Have a look for yourself.  I strongly encourage it.

Bottom line, the Timothy Dalton era was better than most people remember it to be, and as fully half of the entire catalog thereof, Licence To Kill is definitely worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2013

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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